Manga-ka: Aya Kanno
Publisher: Viz Media
Rating: Teen (13+)
Release Date: May 2010
Synopsis: “Having Girly Hobbies Doesn’t Make You Less Manly! Asuka’s protégé Yamato has fallen in love with a girl and needs help winning her over. He pleads with Asuka to go on a practice date with him–and play the role of the girl! Practice makes perfect, but will that be the case for Yamato?”
I like it when a series has a consistent theme. I don’t like it when they run those themes into the ground. At its core, Otomen’s message is a good one: don’t let gender stereotypes get you down. But some of the characters just seem a little extreme, weakening the manga’s moral with their outlandishness. For example, it’s easy to believe that a guy like Asuka could exist in real life: a seemingly manly man who actually adores cute things. But it’s harder to believe that there’s a guy like Kitora who loves flowers to an obsessive level. Unfortunately this volume spends much of its time with those out-there side characters rather than with the more down-to-earth (but also more interesting) leads.
The first storyline in this volume is a carry-over from the previous book. Asuka and Tonomine have become quite popular as the ‘Beauty Samurai,’ a pair of power-ranger like samurai who know all about girls’ clothes and make-up. The two do TV appearances, have merchandise, and there’s even a movie in the works. The boys like it because it allows them to practise their hobbies in public while retaining their anonymity. But Asuka is starting to wonder if it’s really being yourself if you’re still hiding under a mask.
The Beauty Samurai are such a sensation that paparazzi are trying to uncover the samurais’ true identity. There’s one in particular who seems determined to reveal that Asuka’s double life. But Asuka has suspicions of his own, and suspects that the photographer is also hiding something.
While I enjoyed seeing Tonomine and Asuka as the Beauty Samurai, I didn’t really like the paparazzi subplot. Asuka thinks the photographer might be his long-lost father, post-sex change. The way the subplot is handled is rather clumsy and unfunny, which is a shame because it could have been a way to learn more about Asuka’s past and his father’s family.
The next story centers on Yamato, a younger classmate of Asuka. Yamato is an extremely girly boy, but in looks only. He idolizes Asuka, but doesn’t know that Asuka is only really manly on the outside. Yamato is in love and he wants Asuka to help him. In order to be the perfect boyfriend Yamato wants to take Asuka out on a date so he can practice. While on the date, Asuka gets a chance to ogle cute things and eat sweets (Yamato just thinks that Asuka is fully throwing himself into his role and admires him even more). Yamato meanwhile goes in the opposite direction: instead of being himself, he creates this bad boy persona that he thinks will impress the ladies. He’s horribly wrong of course, and after a disastrous date Asuka is able to convince him to drop the act.
Next up is the actual date. In true romantic comedy style, Yamato’s friends tag along and watch from afar. Juta is shocked when he sees that Yamato’s date is his little sister, Kuriko. The date doesn’t go perfectly, but Yamato is at least learns that he’s better off being true to himself than pretending to be someone else.
One result of the date is that Kuriko and flower-loving Kitora happen to meet. The two seem to like each other right away, but there’s a hitch: Kuriko hates flowers. This makes Kitora dead set on changing her mind, though he risks making her hate him as well.
There’s a final story in this volume where Asuka becomes friend with a popular J-rock star. The two bond over their mutual love for an acoustic girl band with cute lyrics. The two also look a lot alike, and when the rock star falls ill right before a show, his band turns to Asuka for help. The story ends on a cliff-hanger, with a mysterious figure emerging just in time to help Asuka. Could it be his long-lost father, or is it another red herring?
One thing I will say for Otomen is that it packs a lot of story into each volume. Even with its ever expanding cast, most of the characters get a chance to shine (except there’s not a lot of Ryo in this volume, which is too bad because she’s a different take on the usual shojo heroine). For me, Otomen works best when it focuses on the main trio of Asuka, Ryo, and Juta. The side characters are fun, but only in small doses. I think there is still room for the main characters to grow, and I hope that in the next volume the story shifts back to them. What I’d really like to see is Asuka ‘coming out’ about his feminine likes and hobbies, not just keeping a secret among his group of friends.
I love Aya Kanno’s art. Her character designs are so crisp and pretty. I love how she draws eyes with so much attention to detail, including things like eye folds. She’s also really good at drawing cute things, which is a necessity in this manga.
Viz also did a pretty good job, though I question some of the choices they made with the translation. On his ‘date’ with Asuka, Yamato keeps going on about how he’s trying to be ‘datewaru.’ In the glossary in the back it’s explained that ‘datewaru’ is a kind of bad boy fashion. So why not just translate the term to that? I admire trying to be accurate the original text, but if there’s an English term why not just use it? An example of doing it right comes from later in the book, where someone refers to a certain style of rock as ‘Rockabilly.’ Maybe that’s not what it said when it was published in Japan, but by using an English term like rockabilly it’s immediately clear what he’s talking about. By using something like ‘datewaru,’ the reader is in the dark until they flip to the back of the book to see what it means.
Otomen continues to be entertaining, but I’m not sure if I like the direction it is going with its increasingly out-there plotlines and characters. I liked it best when it was just a simple story about a guy trying to come to terms with the fact that he likes girly stuff. Here’s hoping that the next volume scales things back a bit and gets back to that.